If you stuck with it long enough to see Joaquin Castro’s five minutes at around 2:45 p.m., you saw what was for my money the key exchange that showed a) some good, to-the-point questioning from a Democrat, but b) what the Democrats are up against here.
Castro was trying to ask Ambassador Bill Taylor why Ukrainian President Zelensky never held that press conference on CNN that Donald Trump wanted him to hold announcing that he was investigating the Bidens. Well, Taylor said, the press conference never happened because on Sept. 11 the president released the aid, and the point became moot—Zelensky was no longer under pressure to please Trump in that way.
Right, Castro said; the aid was released. But why? Isn’t it possible that the president released the aid because he’d gotten wind that there was a whistleblower out there who was about to go public on all this?
Pause. This is a, or maybe even the, key question. The Republicans’ big argument now, and to me probably their most persuasive line, is that the aid was released anyway, after less than two months, so no harm, no foul. And yes, that’s true, it was released.
But as an excuse, it’s bullshit. Trump either delayed the aid or he didn’t. And he obviously did. He delayed it because he wanted Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and 2016. That it was released later—while the country was at war and some people may have died who otherwise might not have—is hardly exculpatory. Holding up the aid for that corrupt purpose is illegal, full stop.
Why was it held up? The full answer is still a bit of a mystery. A confluence of factors came together, but the main factor is obviously that on Sept. 9, two days before the aid was released, the White House got wind of the fact that there was a whistleblower who was going to drop the dime on Trump’s Ukraine dealings. In other words, Donald Trump didn’t wake up on the 11th and think, “My goodness, I’ve been so wrong to hold back this money to these lovely people.” He woke up and thought, “Holy shit, what I’ve been trying to do here is about to go public, I better release this aid so it doesn’t look like I was trying to extort the bastards.”
But of course, Taylor is not going to say that. He’s a nonpolitical career person. Castro tried, bless him. No go. Castro also tried to get Taylor to allow that attempted extortion is still a crime. Is attempted murder a crime, Castro asked Taylor? Yes. Attempted robbery? I’m not a lawyer, but I’ll go out on a limb and say yes. Attempted extortion and bribery? “I don’t know, sir.”
That’s how this is going to go. We are in some kind of LSD version of the world, directed by David Lynch backwards then played forward. What Trump did was the definition of impeachable. But there’s no way to “prove” it, and no amount of screaming at the television is going to make it provable. Career nonpolitical people won’t say it under oath.
And Republicans of course have their own, backwards-Lynch reality. Democrats have facts, and they have fog. The call was innocent. There was no Ukraine probe of the Bidens anyway. And the aid got released. Their version of that was voiced by Jim Jordan just a few minutes after Castro’s questioning. Trump, he said, was just innocently waiting around for all the experts around him to assure him that Zelensky wasn’t corrupt, and voila, these experts came to the president and said “he’s a reformer, release the aid.” And that’s just what the president did. Gee, what a guy.
Here’s the bottom line in all this. Support for impeaching and removing Trump once languished in the mid- to high-30s. Then the Ukraine story broke in late September. At that point support for impeachment and removal shot up to 50 percent, roughly. But there it has stayed. It hasn’t budged.
In other words, it’s just divided America again. Another draw. That’s not good enough, politically. The Democrats need more than a draw here. They need to nudge that 50 up to 55, 57 percent. If they can move the needle into that north-of-55 territory, impeachment will be a political win. Fifty-five or 57 will mean that a solid majority of swing voters have been convinced that Trump committed impeachable offenses. This may or may be foremost in their minds by the time Election Day rolls around, but at least it will mean these hearings weren’t a political disaster.
How do they raise those numbers? I think they mainly have to defeat two pieces of skepticism they’ll face.
The first involves this point that Ukraine got the money at the end of the day anyway. Democrats have to sell the country on their assertion that Trump released the money only because he was about to get busted. A lot hinges on them winning that argument.
The second is that this is just more partisan shenanigans. That they’re just doing to Trump what the Republicans did to Bill Clinton. They need to be explicit about this. Bill Clinton did one thing. Everybody knows what it was. And 70 percent of the country agreed it was not impeachable. They need to say: inappropriate sexual relations were one thing. Trying to involve a foreign government in a U.S. election is quite another. People can tell the difference between these two things. But Democrats need to pound away on this point, say it and say it and say it and say it until it turns into a brain-worm people can’t get out of their heads.
This is ultimately what Democrats have to communicate to the public. I’m not sure which of these witnesses is going to help them do it. These are nonpolitical, career people. They’re going to stay away from the politics. And the political people who do know the truth aren’t going to say it. There isn’t going to be any John Dean here. Fiona Hill, maybe. But more likely the person in the position to do that is John Bolton. That’s where we are—praying for John Bolton to be our era’s John Dean!
The whole thing is going to be a slog, just as today was a slog—a few yards gained here, a few lost there; on balance, more forward motion than backward, but not by as much as one would have hoped. The facts are clear here. You have to be high to believe the Republicans’ version of events. But a lot of people are. And worse.